They make wining look so easy. Despite star player Niki Hartley of St. Francis High nursing a hairline fracture in her right foot, Kaepa City Beach cruised past the competition and had a splendid time doing so at the recent U.S. Junior Olympics volleyball championships.
The girls club team annihilated the Southern California Renegades to claim the national crown in the 18-and-under division June 28 in Dallas.
Kaepa City, which lost to the Renegades earlier this season, defeated the Southern California team 15-9, 15-6, 15-10 in the championship match.
"When they beat us during the season, we took it as an opportunity to make adjustments in our game," said Kaepa City middle blocker Hartley. "We definitely brought it up a notch during the championship game."
The team was guided by Dave Gambelin, girls volleyball coach at St. Francis. Gambelin had the chance to coach three of his Lancers this summer: Hartley, Staci Millichap and Desiree Rook. All three made the all-tournament team, with Hartley winning MVP honors.
The tournament fielded a deep contingent, selecting only the best 32 teams among a talented crop of 3,000.
"Every team was absolutely loaded. They were basically all-star teams," added Gambelin. In essence, the teams were comprised of players in the upper echelons of their respective leagues and sections.
In the initial phases of the tournament, Kaepa City faced a true test after Hartley sustained a foot injury when awkwardly landing on a teammate's foot while attempting a block.
But Hartley returned to action just two days later. Her sheer determination was enough to override her nagging injury.
"There was no way she was going to miss the Junior Olympics. It was really amazing to see her come back and play so well," Gambelin said.
Everything jelled during a 15-13, 4-15, 15-8, 15-11 victory over Sports Performance of Chicago early in the tournament. Sports Performance won the national title a year ago.
Kaepa City then rolled past the Renegades for the title.
The scheduling of the tournament was extremely tough, according to Hartley. However, playing two matches a day was not enough to suppress Kaepa City.
"I think the fact that we played two games a day actually helped us," Hartley said. "While physically, we were tired, having so many back-to-back games kept our competitive spirit and mental toughness alive, which helped us in the end."
The squad trained vigorously as soon as the high school season ended last December. Players took part in weight training, sprints and volleyball-specific exercises.
As for the competition, Kaepa City stepped up to the challenge.
"Whereas in the high school circuit, the season ends at state. Here, not only do we have the best players from each school, but we can go all the way to nationals," added Hartley, who will attend the University of Florida this fall on a volleyball scholarship.
Rook has earned a scholarship as well and is headed to UC-Santa Barbara this fall. Millichap, meanwhile, will be returning to St. Francis for her senior year.
Even though Hartley must wear a protective boot for two more weeks, the injury hasn't taken away from what the squad accomplished this season.
"This was a dream season," Gambelin said.